This post is adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, published by Harvard last month. Pick up your copy here.
Why do people conduct webinars? They’re boring, awful in terms of their ability to make real connections with the audience, and as a result, poorly attended. Why do people continue to do them?
Because they’re a cheap form of meeting. No one has to leave home or the office. No one has to commit to the experience—people can drop off if the webinar doesn’t grab them. Heck, attendees don’t even have to get dressed if they don’t want to.
On the internet, no one knows you’re wearing pajamas.
We humans crave collaborative experiences, but there are simply too many obstacles in the way of a webinar for it to have much of a chance of becoming a collaborative experience. So how can you take this miserable form of communications and make it work a little better? Following are several suggestions for improving webinars — a bit. They are all about good meeting behavior. Things you would do if you were sitting together, face to face, but often get lost online, where people don’t feel obligated to behave as well.
First, begin on time. This sounds obvious, and it should be, but I’ve participated in far too many webinars that didn’t start on time because people were still signing in at five minutes past – and ten minutes past – and the conveners felt obligated to welcome the late-comers. You need to begin the tech setup thirty minutes beforehand and then be ready to be ruthless when the hour comes. Just start, and don’t worry about those who sign in late. Otherwise you’ll have five or ten minutes of: “Oh, I hear someone else has joined. Where are you from? Who is that? Let’s get started. Oh, there’s someone else . . .”
Second, stick to an agenda. Sticking to an agenda is a challenge for me, personally, because I get carried away with the topic, with listener questions, and so on, and cheerfully get lost debating some fine point of communications with a participant. To address this particular failing of mine, I’ve taken assigning someone else the job of timekeeper, with strict instructions to keep us all on track. You must respect the time commitments of the entire group.
Third, have a buddy. You need who will act as an MC to help pick up the ideas that have become lost in the shuffle, and to make sure that everyone who wants to be heard is heard. And you need someone else to run the tech – not your buddy. I once participated in a webinar where there was no tech support. Two of us were co-presenting, but if there were tech people involved, we never could find them. So, of course, a few minutes in, a terrible howl of feedback developed. No one had any idea where it was coming from, but it made the webinar excruciating.
Fourth, never go more than ten minutes without a break – ideally for audience input. Stop for a check-in, for questions, for everyone to bay at the moon—anything to break up the monotony. Taking questions from the audience is ideal, because you’ll get a sense of what your audience is thinking and be able to adjust your material accordingly.
Fifth, provide time checks for the audience. This is a good thing for your MC buddy to do. “Great, Nick. We’ve been going ten minutes, so it’s time for a break. We’ll take questions for five minutes, and then we have two more segments of twenty minutes each. Let’s start the questions now.” These signposts let everyone know where they are, how much more time they have to go, and whether or not they’ll be able to save their question for later. This kind of conscious timekeeping helps keep everyone involved and on target.
If you follow these points, you’ll make a weak form of human interaction a bit better. It’s worth the extra effort.